I woke up at my normal time — probably around 2PM — in my room at Berkeley’s International House, to find an avalanche of email: from a fellow grad student, urging everyone to check the news; from Christos Papadimitriou, reminding us that we have a community here, and communities can comfort; from Luca Trevisan, announcing that the class that he taught and I TA’ed would be canceled, since on a day like this it was impossible to think about algorithms. I then clicked over to news sites to find out what had happened.
After confirming that my friends and family were safe, I walked over to my office in Soda Hall, mostly to find people to talk to. Technically I had office hours for the algorithms class that afternoon, but I didn’t expect students actually to come. Yet come they did: begging for hints on the problem set, asking what would and wouldn’t be on the test, pointing to passages in the CLRS textbook that they didn’t understand. I pored over their textbook, shaking my head in disbelief, glancing up every minute or so at the picture of the burning buildings on the computer screen.
That night there was a big memorial service in Sproul Plaza. When I arrived, a woman offered me a candle, which I took, and a man standing next to her offered me a flyer, which I also took. The flyer, which turned out to be from a socialist organization, sought to place the events of that morning in “context,” describing the World Trade Center victims as “mostly white-collar executives and those who tried to save them.”
After a few songs and eulogies, a woman got up to explain that, on this terrible day, what was really important was that we try to understand the root causes of violence — namely poverty and despair — and not use this tragedy as a pretext to start another war. The crowd thunderously applauded.
While the speeches continued, I got up and wandered off by myself in the direction of Bancroft Way. Much as I did the year before, when the area around Telegraph was festooned with Nader for President posters, I felt palpably that I wasn’t living in an outcomes-based region of reality. The People’s Republic of Berkeley was proving to be a staunch ally of the Oilmen’s Oligarchy of Crawford, undermining the only sorts of opposition to it that had any possibility of succeeding.
I decided to forget about politics for a while and concentrate exclusively on research. I can’t say I succeeded at this. But I did pass my prelim exam three days later (on September 14), and a few weeks afterward proved the quantum lower bound for the collision problem.
Note: Feel free to post your own retrospective in the comments section. Andris Ambainis has already done so.